I typed those words as a note in my phone after a dinner at Journeymen, the ambitious new Atwater Village restaurant in the space once occupied by the adored Canelé and helmed by chef David Wilcox and general manager Guy Tabibian, who crossed paths at Venice's equally beloved Gjelina and Gjusta.
Taken on its own, “wine problems” could mean so many things — an unfortunate bachelorette party hashtag, perhaps — but that night, it was a reminder that something short-circuited when we tried to hack the system at Journeymen. The ensuing scenario was like dealing with an automated customer service system that, no matter how many times you scream “operator!” into the phone, still can't comprehend that you want to speak to an actual human. But I'll get back to that.
It's the fault of the equally innovative and problematic setup at Journeymen. In the age of gratuity-included menu prices, an attempt by restaurants to level out service wages, Journeymen is taking the concept a step further: Menu prices include tax, and there is no tipping; the place is operating under what it calls a gratuity-free model. But where the restaurant is really pushing the envelope is with its staffing model. No one is referred to as a server or busser, and there's a more democratic, free-for-all approach to service, with some of the cooks even running food. In an even more inclusive, forward-thinking move, all of the staff is trained across the business, hence the name “journeymen.”
The first reports about the restaurant described a style of dining reminiscent of a tapas bar, which sounded intriguing and perplexing: Guests would order at a counter, maybe sample some snacks and chat up the kitchen staff, then take a seat at a table and mark off a dim sum–style chit to order food, after which regular table service would begin.
To my surprise — and relief, because I feared a shit show — none of that is happening: There's a regular old host stand at the front of the restaurant. On the edge of a long, open kitchen, a counter is filled with individual ingredients and dishes set out (a big bowl of chickpea salad here, a small plate of anchovies there. The food isn't meant to be eaten straight off the counter by guests; it's used by the cooks to prep dishes. But given the initial, tapas-esque reports, it's confusing.
I asked a host about the setup and was told, “It's there so people can interact with the food and ask questions.” But no one was “interacting” with said food, which made it reminiscent of a lonely fake-sushi display in a Japanese restaurant. (It's worth noting that on Mondays, dinner is served tapas-style, sans menu and with all of the dishes served on the counter.)
Once you're seated, either at a cozy high-top or counter area near the windows up front or at a table or banquette in the mostly pale gray dining room in back, you do order by checking off the ballot-style tickets, which a server then inputs for the kitchen. The chit is novel but it mostly feels unnecessary.
Multiple staffers might wait on your table — and that's where things can go awry, as in the case of that wine. When one of our servers asked if we'd like to try a couple of reds, not only did he leave my friend and me empty-glassed for well over 15 minutes as food kept arriving but he avoided eye contact altogether when we tried to get his attention. We finally flagged down another hapless server to help and got our tastes several minutes later, but by that point we were practically finished with dinner. The moral here is: If you throw the Journeymen system a curveball, it doesn't know how to recover.
It seems to be a problem with direction; given the egalitarian nature of the restaurant, it doesn't necessarily feel as if anyone's steering the ship. The lack of focus could be applicable to the massive, very loosely Spanish-inspired menu, too. One night I ate there, it listed a couple of snacks, four toasts, 18 small plates, five entrees and three desserts. It's hard for anyone to do 32 things well, and the inconsistency shows.
Some of the simpler, Gjelina-esque vegetable combinations are the best thought-out and executed dishes: Melted wisps of raw-milk Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese from Wisconsin form a crown atop a buttery mix of heirloom corn. Pan-roasted and crushed fingerling potatoes have everything you want in a potato dish: crisp skin, soft flesh, the right (read: generous) amount of salt and a punch of lemon from huacatay (Persian black mint) pistou.
The excellent house-made bread is deservedly given a lot of attention: Served charred with a caponata-esque eggplant relish with plump golden raisins and crème fraîche–consistency Liwa goat cheese or on its own with cultured butter, it's a testament to how much care and effort Journeymen can exert. The Basque cake shows attention to detail as well, with its pebbly almond topping reminiscent of a Good Humor Toasted Almond (in the very best way), a hefty dollop of fresh whipped cream and tangy passion fruit curd.
I wish more of the meat dishes had been as lovely as the pork collar, simply grilled a la plancha, served in tender, juicy, nicely fatty strips with blistered poblanos and a plum jam gastrique that cut through the richness. Pistachio butter and a green plum gastrique couldn't save a tough, stringy piece of duck confit, and a small hanger steak, while spot-on in seasoning and flavor with nubs of West West Blue cheese and melty cipollini, was cooked perfectly in certain slices but browned all the way through in others.
When the kitchen loses focus, it often sacrifices common sense for beauty. Two large whole radishes, with their leaves still attached, take the stage in a lackluster radish salad. Not only were they difficult to eat (too hard to cut, too big to just pop in your mouth) but they didn't pick up the too-thin buttermilk-poppy dressing. With a salty, cured-within-an-inch-of-its-life tuna conserva, cucumber ribbons did little to add flavor or texture.
All this being said, I applaud the amount of consideration that's gone into creating the Journeymen vision. It's exciting to see a neighborhood spot that's striving for more. And everyone there looks as if they're having a good time, whether tucked into a banquette or gazing out the window at the characters walking by on Glendale.
There's the famous Coco Chanel line about accessorizing: “Before you leave the house every day, take one thing off.” Ambition is a good thing, especially for a well-meaning neighborhood restaurant. But Journeymen might want to take a couple of things off.
JOURNEYMEN | 3219 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village | (323) 284-8879 | journeymenla.com | Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; day menu: Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. | Snacks, $6-$9; small plates $14-$20; large plates, $29-$39 | Beer & wine
Following the September departure of restaurant critic Besha Rodell, L.A. Weekly will be publishing reviews in the coming weeks from a number of voices. Karen Palmer is the former editorial director of Tasting Table; you should read her recent piece for the publication: “In the age of the influencer, do restaurant critics still matter?”